Historical writing can be emotionally tough

Those of you interested in historical writing would have been fascinated by an evening arranged by the Society of Authors recently.

Lady Antonia Fraser and Antony Beevor – two of the most respected historians of our time – were talking about how they approached their work and what emotional impact writing, often traumatic events, had on them as individuals.

I had never thought before about the personal cost of being a historical writer.  Take Antony Beevor. He writes modern history, much of it concerned with the Second World War, so, unlike Antonia Fraser, who specialises in the Tudors, he is able to interview people connected with the events he’s researching.  And not just the goodies.  The baddies as well.  He spoke about meeting a German who’d worked alongside the Fuehrer.  “I found I was shaking a hand that had shaken the hand of Hitler”. A challenging thought.

Some of his interviews – with war criminals, with survivors – have left him sleepless. Some of the things he has uncovered chill the blood. At the time, he said, you just concentrate on getting the material down, the emotional impact of what you have heard doesn’t hit you ’til much later, usually in the middle of the night.  After visiting some of the death camps it was years before he could sit in front of a plate of food and not think that in those circumstances it would have fed 10 people.

For Antonia Fraser the emotional connection was different, but still intense.  Her subjects are long dead, but when you research a life in detail – a life for which you already have a fascination, and often an empathy – when you visit archives and read and touch the letters they wrote, look at the clothes they wore, or walk where they walked; when you immerse yourself in every detail of their lives, the horrors and fascinations of their times, these historical figures become intensely personal to you.

I can relate to that. I remember when I was studying for my PhD, the Swedish monk I was writing about, though he lived in the 13th century, was almost as real to me as my living friends. (Perhaps this says something infinitely sad about historians!).  History isn’t about scientific fact, it’s about emotional events.  And it’s in our DNA. We feel connected. And clearly, when Antonia spoke about Mary Queen of Scots, the manner of her execution still moved her, so real was this Tudor queen to this 21st century Lady.

What both writers made clear from the outset was the difference between writing history – which is what they do – and writing historical fiction.  Historical fiction, or faction, definitely has its place, but if you want to know the difference between the two, look out for adjectives.  Historians would never write “King James smiled at the Lady X as she sauntered past” unless there was reliable, written historical evidence that Lady X did in fact “saunter” past at that particular moment in the days events, and that James had actually smiled.  Unlikely!

Anthony Beevor felt the problem for future historians lay in the fact that reliable written evidence is now on the decline.  How will they find the truth about events in the 21st century and beyond when we rarely write letters or commit thoughts to paper? We email, or text, or use social media. The everyday realities of ordinary people will be lost in the ether. Even politicians are now using their own private emails to communicate so that conversations can be, and are, erased. What written material there is, like published diaries and memoirs – are by their nature slanted versions of real events, coloured by a personal bias, an in any case, reflect the lives of only a privileged few.

But while he feared lack of reliable documentary proof would make it extremely hard for future generations of historians, Antonia Fraser was more sanguine.  Historians, she felt, would always find a way.

This was a fascinating evening with two charming, self-effacing authors whose passion for their work, and utter integrity as writers, was inspirational.

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